Who Gets to Speak and Why: A Conversation With Chris Kraus

“Why haven’t we met before?” Chris Kraus asks me when she walks into my hotel room. She and I live just a few miles from each other in Los Angeles, but we’re both here in Dallas for an event at a local bookstore, where Kraus will be reading from her forthcoming biography of the writer Kathy Acker. She’s been doing a lot of interviews lately: Her 1997 novel I Love Dick, already a feminist classic, has just been adapted as a TV series for Amazon.

Her body of work, which was already revered in the art world and in academia, is finding a much broader audience. It is now the stuff of billboards and magazine covers, not just independent bookstores and young women’s Tumblrs. Which is one reason why I’m so flattered by her casual suggestion that we might have already met. Can she tell I am intellectually intimidated and pretty nervous about our conversation? Probably.

Kraus is adept at speaking to the insecurities of younger women. When she published I Love Dick, it was immediately embraced by women who felt disrespected as artists and driven crazy by the power imbalances in their romantic relationships with men. Kraus explored what women had long suspected: That these two phenomena are somehow related. In the novel, a frustrated filmmaker named Chris Kraus meets and becomes obsessed with Dick, one of her husband’s colleagues. Her one-sided correspondence with him forms the basis for the book. It is a delicious bit of script-flipping: Dick never consents to be her muse, but she makes him one anyway. In it and her three other novels, Kraus takes things that women often experience as shameful — unrequited lust, a tendency to over-intellectualize mundane situations, imposter syndrome, a desire to be taken seriously by men — and elevates them to art by juxtaposing them with the work of cultural critics and theorists.

Kraus was born in the Bronx, spent her early years in Connecticut, and her family moved to New Zealand for some of her teenage years. At the time, Kraus was obsessed with the theater. After graduating from the Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, her first job was as a features reporter. When she was 21, she moved to New York to become an artist. She tried acting again and staged performance pieces, but failed to gain traction in the New York art world. Over the years, she made several films that she struggled to find distribution for. Kraus was 40 when she sat down to write I Love Dick.

It was, as they say, a cult hit. When the book was reprinted in 2006, it became a bigger hit. You’ve probably seen the cover of this printing, with its thick white border and stark green title font, on some famous young feminist’s Instagram feed. These days, if you Google “I Love Dick” you’ll need to append the word “book,” because the Amazon series (adapted by Transparent creator Jill Soloway) has been getting a lot of press. In it, Kathryn Hahn plays a sexily disheveled version of Kraus.

The real Chris Kraus speaks decisively in a soft voice, and has shoulder-length brown hair and wide, friendly eyes. The day we met, she was wearing a white canvas jacket, purchased abroad, that I was really envious of. She has come to accept that I Love Dick is the book she’s most known for, but it’s just one of many books she’s written — and other work she’s helped bring to life in her role as an editor of the independent publishing imprint Semiotext(e). I was eager to talk to her about all of her work: about the joys and pitfalls of making art from life, about the way her writing has become part of an unofficial art-feminist canon, and about how she marries art and politics. What follows is an edited version of our conversation — we spoke for about an hour, but we could have talked all night.

Ann Friedman and Chris Kraus at the Women Galore festival in Dallas this spring. Photo: Elliott Muñoz

Ann: There is such a “You can be anything” bent to the tacit feminism that I grew up with. And so much of your writing deals quite candidly with women’s failure and longing. Do you see your work as a corrective to this kind of super-positive “you go girl” strain of mainstream feminism?

Chris: [Laughs.] Yeah. I never bought into any of the sort of positivity. I was of an era where New Age came along, and I found that so deeply repugnant, and I wrote about it. When I wrote I Love Dick, it’s not as if — I mean, I’ve never put myself forward as any kind of political leader or cultural critic or even cultural theorist. I was just writing a book, right? And in writing the book I was trying to give as true a depiction as I could of events that occurred in as entertaining a manner as possible. You know, you play it up a little bit — that was a thing I learned in acting. If you feel something coming on, you push it. You project it into a mask. So yes, obviously she’s starting to inhabit the place of the crazy girl and the obsessive stalker. So rather than analyze that and ask ourselves whether it’s the right thing to do, as a writer I just push that, and I let her totally go to that place and own it.

Ann: And then you can let the reader be the one to ask whether she’s doing the right thing, or whether she’s too sad, or too desperate, or going too far.

Chris: Yeah, well, that’s hyperbolizing. You know, I didn’t set out to write a book when I started writing those letters. That was a very primary experience, and I just wrote the letters. But as soon as I did see it as a book and start to compose it as a book and name the characters and put them in the third person, it was a style choice. I thought I was making like a late-20th-century version of an 18th-century sex comedy. I was looking for laughs.

Ann: It’s interesting to think about your work as coming from a personal archive. I think about the vast digital detritus that I have: the drafts of emails, the meaningless tweets. Maybe it’s more common now for women to make art based on that, or to use that as an inspiration.

Chris: Well, I would never have called that material a personal archive. It was just my stuff that I was carrying around. But, you know, there are a lot of precedents for that. I was a huge reader of collections of correspondences. I was fascinated by reading people’s letters. And also diaries. When you read the complete works of somebody, you get interested in all the tangential materials and how they dovetail, so it never seemed to me such a stretch to be pulling these bits of materials into the novel.

Ann: You said you don’t think of yourself as a political leader. But so much of your work has been received and interpreted as political or feminist. I’m wondering if you think that’s bullshit.

Chris: I mean, if I had another life to live I might be a politician or I might be an activist. That is a high and worthy calling, and I really admire the sacrifice that it takes. But I went another way; I decided to become a writer. And yes, of course, I see the world through a very political lens. And that’s reflected in my choice of subject matter and my attitude and how I talk and what I choose to talk about. But I don’t pretend that reading my books is going to affect any particular pragmatic change. What books and what culture can do is change the zeitgeist, right? That’s all that you can help.

Ann: Right, and that maybe the work speaks to the particular politics of the moment.

Chris: I was so happy in 2011 with Occupy Wall Street. You know, after writing Summer of Hate and living through these kind of atrocious years of the Iraq War and George W. Bush and spending some of them in the southwest where you felt it acutely, I was so relieved that suddenly politics and dissent and anarchism were out of the closet and part of the culture again.

Ann: And so how are you thinking about this political moment? Does it feel familiar?

Chris: Well, this moment is completely confounding. I have no idea. That’s not my job to offer views on the present political situation. My job is to write another book. But I was reading a really interesting article in The New Yorker on the airplane this morning about this guy who is a religious fundamentalist. Well, god, how do I even summarize it? An anti-capitalist religious fundamentalist who holds the idea that maybe the only thing possible now is for there to be little autonomous pockets where people lead more intentional lives, and the big picture kind of goes on. I have thought for a while that maybe the only way out of our situation is through a theocracy.

Ann: Whoa. Really?

Chris: Yeah. Yeah.

Ann: As in, theocracy would make things so recognizably bad that people would rise up against it? Or more of a benevolent theocratic regime?

Chris: A benevolent theocratic regime. People are so lost and so starved for any sense of meaning or purpose. Any fixed value. And, I mean, all the pundits say that’s why Trump won. There’s something so deeply wrong with both sides, with the smugness of the neoliberal kind of mainstream Democrat Party and something so deeply wrong with the sort of vicious hatred and polarization of the Republican wing.

Things are not subjective. There’s good and there’s bad, and those things are not negotiable. It’s not my good versus your good; there’s a good that’s larger than us. And I think that’s something that people are longing for. In a way that goes back to work that I did on the philosopher Simone Weil. She wrote a lot about these same issues and themes in the 1930s, and she really called fascism in its early days. She traveled to Germany before the Nazis were officially in power. I think it was in ’32, ’33. And she talked about the way the Communist Party was losing support to the Nazi Party and why she thought that was.

Ann: I’m still stuck on you saying, “My job is to write my books,” because I think people are starting to raise their expectations of artists and public figures who aren’t explicitly political. If you have any kind of platform or influence, you’re expected to play a political role in the world.

Chris: As a citizen, I never miss a vote, and I contribute to a lot of political causes and organizations. As an editor, together with Hedi [El Kholti] and Sylvère [Lotringer], I publish political activist works that I feel are genuinely important. We’re publishing Jackie Wang’s first book next season. It’s called Carceral Capitalism. You know, I met her years ago when she had a zine and she was living squat-to-squat in Baltimore, and now she’s in the Ph.D. program in the African American Studies program at Harvard, and she’s doing great work on the systemic roots of the prison industrial complex, especially in municipal governments. That’s a really important book to publish. I was involved in publishing The Femicide Machine by Sergio González Rodríguez. That was a really important book to publish. These people are out there doing the work. I think the best that I can do is to present the work.

Ann: You are quite open about the fact that you make your money in real estate and rental property, and not necessarily directly from your art. Was it a conscious choice to free yourself artistically, or a choice born of necessity?

Chris: I think, now, to get a full-time tenure-line job where you can support yourself, you have to want it since age 5. It has to be part of that exceptionalism ethos of the Obama era. You have to have been sucking up since early childhood and doing every single thing right, and I never did that. I actually moved over into saying, “Okay, I’m going to do property management.” I would call it property management more than real-estate investing because I don’t flip buildings — I think that’s irresponsible. I bought buildings. I fixed them. I manage them. They’re low-income apartments.

Basically, I was losing my job. I had a job at Art Center that I moved out to California for. My boss got fired. There was a regime change. They started taking my classes away one by one, like waitressing shifts, and when I just had like one or two classes left I thought, fuck it, I’m not going to stick around for this. And, you know, I could get another adjunct job here and another adjunct job there, but nobody supports themselves on an adjunct job. And really hardly anybody supports themselves as a writer. So if you take a closer look at how people in the culture world are supporting themselves, you’ll see a lot of family money behind the scenes. And somehow, people have been very critical and snarky about the real-estate thing, as if I’m a wealthy person. They would never dare to ask where the money that went to make the trust came from.

Ann: So many art careers are built on money that people don’t talk about.

Chris: When I wrote I Love Dick, very early on I felt like my goal was to put everything on the table that was transacted under the table. There’s this kind of gender romantic comedy on the surface of it, but really it’s about power. And not even personal dynamic power; more like economic power and cultural-politics power, and how things are transacted. I think the book asks literally in the middle, “Who gets to speak and why is the only question.” I really tried to answer that. And okay, I think that’s a pretty political thing to do, to try and track down an effect to its cause.

Ann: “Who gets to speak and why” feels very relevant to this moment, too.

Chris: I got into that question in a little more depth with a book called Video Green that I published in 2004. That book was written just before I was losing my job in this high-profile MFA program. But while I was there, I got a really inside view on how careers are made. And that doesn’t really have a lot to do with the work; it has a lot more to do with how these people relate to power, the friendships that they cultivate, the protectors that they find. You know, the girl who goes to the party in a bubble-wrap dress and sits on the lap of a 25-years-older successful male artist, this is the girl who’s going to have a good career. The girl who paints landscapes on Styrofoam cups and keeps to herself and looks a little bit dykey, maybe not so much. That was true when I was writing the book in the early 2000s and thank god it’s changed somewhat. It hasn’t changed enough.

Ann: One of the things that I love about your work is how you have both compassion for and a sense of humor about both the bubble-wrap-dress girl and the Styrofoam-cup-painting girl. Do you think that things have changed for better or for worse, for both of those types of girls?

Chris: I write about this a lot in the new book, in the Acker book, because I was lucky to talk to a lot of Kathy’s friends and contemporaries. Kathy’s generation found themselves stepping into a situation where second-wave feminism had kind of cleared the field, and they were told that they had this freedom, and how were they going to use it? It wasn’t clear. Constance DeJong, she’s a wonderful writer, she was a friend and then later enemy of Kathy. Kathy was very good at cultivating enemies. If anyone seemed too close to being a competitor she would turn them into an enemy and she did that with DeJong. But they were contemporaries and Constance DeJong wrote a book called Modern Love that’s just been republished this year by Ugly Duckling. It’s hilarious and DeJong talks about that right in the pages of the book. You know, “I have all this freedom. Here I am. What am I supposed to do with it?”

Ann: If the person who gets to speak is me, what am I going to say?

Chris: The change between that era and our era, I think, is on the plus side it’s so much more pluralistic and there are so many more channels that people can move through. And information about work and culture spreads so much faster, so something really can come out of nowhere. And a lot of important and smart people will be talking about it to each other. The access was much more controlled, I think, in Kathy Acker’s era. So the pluralism is a good thing. The downside of the pluralism is that everything cycles through so much more quickly and feels so much more expendable.

Ann: I keep thinking about the phrase you used, “the exceptionalism ethos of the Obama era.” There are more paths to success now, but then there is also this sense that you are competing with everyone in the whole world as opposed to competing with five artists that you know on your block in New York. There’s a downside.

Chris: Yeah, that’s true. Nobody lives anywhere anymore. Every artist or writer bio says “X or Y is based in.” Is based in — I mean, I have a friend who’s applying for a job in Helsinki, who would be moving there from New York. And people think nothing of that. You know, it annihilates place.

Ann: Or maybe the place is the digital space we all occupy now.

Chris: There’s no such thing as nowhere, right? Nowhere is everywhere; everywhere is nowhere.

Ann: Do you think there are different implications for women who exist in this everywhere/nowhere space? I’m thinking about the feedback that women get for their work or opinions in online spaces being often so vitriolic. The tenor of it is very different, I think, than the negative feedback that men get for their ideas in this common space. So that’s one way that this feels different to me for women.

Chris: That’s very true. I had a terrible experience this week with the Guardian. I did a really wonderful conversation with a journalist Rachel Cook, mostly about Torpor that’s just been republished in the U.K. And the entire hour-long conversation, the thing they picked for the headline is “Chris Kraus: Who Hasn’t Had an Affair?” Awful. You should read the comments. It’s like 150 people weighing in on their views on monogamy and what a smug asshole I must be to espouse these views, as if my book was about having an affair. [Laughs.] On the other hand here we are, we’re sitting in a nice hotel. There are worse atrocities.

Ann: Is it hard to read negative comments about your work? Definitely. Is it harder than the privilege of getting to make work that is seen by a huge audience? No. But that tradeoff doesn’t happen in the same way for men.

Chris: Yeah. Hedi, my friend and co-editor, sent me an article this morning that was so pertinent, about writing while female. Why is every book somehow falling under the genre of chick-lit? I mean, what do you have to do to assert your work as a serious thing? How can it not be subsumed into this vast trough of the culture? Maybe one answer is there’s a sacred niche of high literature that somehow is maintained above that, and that niche is generally more male-inhabited than female-inhabited. There are an awful lot of women writing, and an awful lot of women writing great work, but that niche still remains a very demographically narrow white, male, upper-middle-class niche. That niche of high seriousness.

Certainly that’s something I’ve been fighting against since I’ve started to be aware and culturally active. When I started the Native Agent series for Semiotext(e) in the ‘90s it was with the idea of presenting a female first-person that could be as universal as a male first-person. I mean, all through the literature it’s all autobiographical. It’s all this male “I” talking about shit. But as soon as it’s a woman talking about shit, she’s only talking about herself and her problems. That all comes back to her. So yes, that’s been a mission of mine when I started my work with Semiotext(e).

Ann: Many critics have applied the term “autofiction” to your work — have you grown to hate that label? Did you always hate it?

Chris: I would never use that term. It’s such a strange term. It’s applied to my work, and to a lot of other people’s work, but I would never use it. I mean, there are so many examples in the history of literature of a male first-person that’s used pretty closely to the identity of the writer, and we don’t call it that. I mean, okay, the corny Beat example, Jack Kerouac: We don’t call that autofiction? Herman Melville, do we call that autofiction? I mean, all of American realism that’s written in the first person — we don’t call that autofiction. It’s so weird.

Ann: That’s why I’m often torn about asking women about the feminist implications of their creative work. I’m interested in how women think through all of these questions about the way that their work will be read and received, and at the same time I don’t want to make all women answer for an ideology when they’re just trying to make art.

Chris: Well, for a long time I wasn’t being read the way I am now. My books were read in the art world. Those are very smart people in the art world. In a way, it was a perfect audience, but it was also not a literary audience. And I thought, oh, if only I could be taken seriously as a writer. Somehow I got to be in the art world and now I get to be in more mainstream culture because of I Love Dick, and maybe that high-lit thing will always evade me. And that’s okay.

Who Gets to Speak and Why: A Conversation With Chris Kraus